Cover Story: Adventure Calls
Retired educators find new peak experiences around the world
By Thomas Grillo
When Jo Ann Evans taught elementary school just outside of Portland, Oregon, she never did anything more adventurous on her vacations than housekeeping or yard work.
But that all changed in 1999 when she retired after three decades of teaching.
In a span of six years, Evans has climbed Mount Saint Helens in Washington, hiked the Vatnajökull Ice Cap in Iceland, reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and completed a 190 mile coast-to-coast trek in northern England.
“When I was teaching, I wasn’t physically fit. I was in a classroom all day, corrected papers at night, and, in the summer, I just did projects around the house,” said Evans, 63. “Ironically, I had to retire to become fit.”
And Evans is not alone. Teachers who were once content with routine trips to the Bahamas, Europe, and Disneyland are now taking on extreme challenges in retirement.
Thirty years ago, most Americans believed the stereotypes associated with aging: hit 50 and the road led straight downhill. At most there might have been a bus tour or an island cruise along the way.
Today, Americans over 50 are recognizing the possibilities in their mature years. At 60 and beyond, they find themselves still in their prime, with an average life expectancy much longer than that of their grandparents. Retirees have more time, energy, and money than their parents ever dreamed about. This newfound freedom has allowed them to be more daring in their travels.
While some retirees are content to sit back and relax or perhaps take on a less stressful part-time job, many retired Baby Boomers, especially educators, are seeking experiences in exotic locations. Travel agents who specialize in getaways for the over-50 crowd say many retirees have already seen the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Now travelers are setting off in search of new adventure in places such as Alaska, South America, and Africa.
Agents say the most popular trips include safaris that offer close encounters with Africa’s wildlife, South American tours to the remote Galapagos islands, the Peruvian Amazon, and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Consider Lilchy Huffman: Last summer, this retired science teacher booked a 10-day trip to Alaska and took along her great niece and nephew. The trio rode the Skagway, Alaska, White Pass Yukon train.
The narrow-gauge railroad, a historic civil engineering marvel, was built during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. The three-hour trip took them from the port of Skagway, up the mountains to White Pass Summit at 2,865 feet.
“The trip was spectacular,” said Huffman. “We saw the Skagway River, glacial cut valleys, and beautiful rock formations. By the time we reached White Pass there was virtually no vegetation because it’s above the freeze line.”
Unlike Jo Ann Evans, Huffman was no novice traveler. While teaching for 33 years in Prince William County, Virginia, she toured China multiple times. She also flew in a hot air balloon over the Australian Outback, spotting wild horses and kangaroos from the air, not saying a word because “we wanted to enjoy the beauty in silence.”
“I don’t have any fear,” Huffman said. “I can’t explain why.”
Huffman got the idea to see Alaska after flying over the state several times on her way to China. One night, watching a Discovery Channel program about an Alaskan cruise, she put the trip on her to-do list.
The cruise ship started in Vancouver, Washington, then made its way up to Ketchikan, Alaska, and through the islands of the Inside Passage to Skagway.
Perhaps the most exhilarating part of the trip was a bus excursion to Denali National Park to see Mount McKinley, America ’s tallest mountain. Denali includes more than six million acres and encompasses a complete sub-arctic eco-system, home to grizzly bears, wolves, sheep, caribou, and moose.
Huffman and her companions then boarded a nine-seat plane to Coldfoot, Alaska, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. From there, they drove to the Arctic town of Wiseman, population 30, where the small tour included a visit with a year-round resident.
“It was a trip back in time. The man lived in a log cabin, trapped furs to make into coats to keep warm, and had cut six cords of wood to get through the winter,” she said. “But I couldn’t help but notice that he owned a TV and a computer.”
Then there’s Marilyn Boyce. In 2003, she and her husband went to Peru to fulfill a longtime dream of climbing Machu Picchu high in the Andes Mountains.
Machu Picchu is perched high upon a rock in a narrow saddle between two sharp mountain peaks and overlooks the Urubamba River. This imposing city is one of the largest pre-Columbian sites found virtually intact. Machu Picchu spreads over five square miles with over 3,000 steps linking its many different levels. It shows an astonishing architectural design and execution, including a terracing system built on extremely steep terrain.
“We wanted to see Machu Picchu before we got too old because it’s a very difficult climb,” said Boyce. “We spent four hours walking up stone steps chiseled in the mountain with no railings 12,000 feet high in the Andes. It’s dangerous and a guide takes you up very carefully and slowly.”
Asked what she saw on the trip up, Boyce laughed and said, “My feet.”
“I’m clumsy so I had to watch my step,” she said. “But when we stopped at various plateaus along the way we could look down into the Valley of the Incas and a river where we went white water rafting.”
Boyce, 61, is well traveled, having visited Costa Rica, Europe, and Egypt after teaching about those places in her elementary classroom for many years. She retired in 2001.
“It helped that my husband and I walk an hour a day because there’s lots of walking to do on these tours,” she said.
But for Jo Ann Evans, who calls herself a “typical housewife,” the sudden leap into adventure travel came as quite a surprise.
“After I retired, I just assumed that I would lead a quiet life,” she said. “But my husband had always wanted to go to the Mount Everest base camp to see what it was like.”
That’s how she found herself 7,000 miles from home on a two-hour trek from the Rongbuk Monastery in Nepal to the base of the highest peak on earth.
“We flew out of Portland on the Friday after 9/11, on the first flight after the terrorist attacks,” she said. “It was quite an experience and I discovered that I like adventure.”
At 19,340 feet—nearly four miles—Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is Africa ’s highest point. This extinct volcano presented one of Evans’ greatest challenges. Last year, she and a group of younger teacher friends made the seven-day journey to the summit.
One reason Evans wanted to make the trip was that scientists estimate that the glacier atop Kilimanjaro will melt by 2020 because of global warming.
“I wanted to see it before it disappeared,” Evans said. “I didn’t realize that Mt. Kilimanjaro was climbable for someone like me, but I decided that this is something I could do even though I was the oldest in the group and the youngest was 28.”
The most challenging portion of the trip was the final trek to the top. The group started the final ascent at 10:30 p.m. with the goal of reaching the top by sunrise.
“We turned on our headlamps and traveled all night long,” she recalled. “It was pretty grueling. We climbed over and around giant boulders in the dark. Seven of us, including me, made it up to the summit. Five others had to turn back.”
Her most recent trip was to England, but not the usual tour of London. Evans and her husband walked all the way across the North of England from St. Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay, on the North Sea coast.
Rated “challenging” by the Ramblers’ Association, a British non-profit whose mission is to to promote hiking, the trip links the Irish Sea and the North Sea via the hills, moors, and valleys of northern England.
The route crosses three National Parks: the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors. It is scenic, but high-level, including some fairly demanding upland stretches, and visits only two towns of any real size, Kirkby Stephen and Richmond.
Coast-to-coast, the walk stretched 190 miles through farmland, ancient Roman roads, down into the valleys and grasslands, through the moors and bogs, and around lakes.
“Our hike was closer to 220 miles because we got lost a few times,” Evans said. “But we never gave up and kept forging our way across. We met up with a man who had made the hike the previous year and he helped us.”
The couple traveled by day and slept in bed and breakfasts along the way during the 14-day trip. Each day, a service delivered their baggage to the next B&B.
“From time to time we came across fenced-in farmland, but we always found a ladder to get us over the fence,” she said. “Even today, there’s a public right of way that is respected by landowners.”
The pair navigated their journey using only a compass and ordinance survey maps that pictured landmarks such as an old quarry or a Roman ruin.
“Going across England, I imagined it like in Robin Hood’s days going through the forest and the fields and farmland,” she said.
They walked across moors and up mountains. Things got a little scary at times, and Evans wondered if they should have chosen an easier adventure. While many hiking and mountain trips in the United States have clearly defined trails with signs, in England you’re feeling your way across the countryside like an explorer visiting the site for the first time.
“In Oregon we have proper trails, but in England you are on your own,” she said. “The mist comes in and you can only see three feet ahead so things got a little hairy and I had second thoughts,” she added. “Remember the old fairy tales of meeting witches? It was black and creepy at times.”
Still, the couple managed to make their way. “A lot of it is mental, I just psyched myself up,” she said. “It helped that we were in shape from hiking Oregon trails together twice a week.”
“Many Americans are getting to an age when they say, ‘I have only so many years left. What have I always wanted to do? Where do I want to go? What’s on my wish list?” says Stephanie Nichols, a spokeswoman for Overseas Adventure Travel, a Boston-based travel agency that organizes tours for people over 50.
She finds Americans are much more interested in the world than they used to be, and they want to see the world beyond the usual tourist destinations.
Nichols said nearly a third of their customers are educators. “It’s a natural for them because they are interested in lifelong learning and curious about the world. That’s who they are,” she said.